Welcome to the party! "Playa" is one of Latin America's fastest-growing communities, with a population of more than 135,000 and an international flavor lent by the Estadounidenses (United States citizens), Canadians, and Europeans who have moved here since the early 1990s. The eminently walkable downtown, full of lively bars, restaurants, beach clubs, shops, and hotels is one of the few places on the Riviera Maya where you can have a car-free vacation.

Sun and swim at trendy beach clubs by day, then drink and dance at nightclubs until the sun comes up and start all over again. In between, there's an enjoyable array of diversions along Avenida 5, a pedestrian-only cobbled street that is the town's main drag. Its southern section, from about Calle 4 to Constituyentes, is busy, noisy, and sometimes rowdy—the place to go for nightlife, tequila shots, and souvenir shopping. Its quieter, more upscale northern end, north of Constituyentes up to about Calle 38, is the place for chic cafés and stylish boutiques. Rapid development means a decline in Mexican culture, with chain stores and cheap souvenirs emerging on every corner (Starbucks junkies can easily get their fix.)

The club scene is a major draw in the South Beach of Mexico. The action is on Calle 12, lined with nightclubs and lively young things ready to set the night afire. Most clubs are open-air, so this part of town gets very noisy until very late—something to keep in mind if you're planning to stay downtown, and actually want to sleep. The north end of Avenida 5 is quieter at night. Since Fifth Avenue’s pedestrian zone ends at Calle 32, you might encounter street noise from cars (rather than people) if you stay north of here. By day, Playa's lively beach clubs are packed with travelers lounging in the sun or dancing to the sounds of a live DJ.

Although building-height restrictions have helped to keep Playa from turning into the next Cancún, you'll have to leave town to get off the beaten path. Most of the area is developed, most recently by a slew of all-inclusive resorts opening up on the city's outskirts. If you plan on leaving the town center, be aware of your surroundings. A slight increase in criminal activity was reported in 2012, most of which occurred outside major resort areas.